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Battle of the Sexes: What ‘Insecure’ Can Learn From ‘Two Can Play That Game’

In a season of cringeworthy behavior from its main characters—and robust dialogue among the fans who identify with them—Sunday night’s episode of ‘Insecure’ pointed to a deeper exploration of its protagonist

Issa Rae HBO/Ringer Illustration

In the final scene of Sunday night’s Insecure, a wounded Issa (Issa Rae) returns home to the one-bedroom apartment she once shared with her ex, Lawrence (Jay Ellis). Following a heated confrontation with Lawrence outside a friend’s birthday dinner, Issa is greeted by a rent-increase notice tacked to the door. With the stress of a new financial burden compounded by the conspicuous absence of a second name on the lease, Issa desperately seeks catharsis. And wine. And destruction. In a fit of frustration, Issa screams as she kicks her chairs, throws her table, knocks down her bookcase, and tosses her wine bottle at the wall.

Both the precipitating argument and the impromptu apartment redecoration were raw, rare breakthroughs for a character whose problems stem primarily from a refusal to confront—and communicate—her emotions. But the apartment trashing is notable beyond its function as an unusually transparent window into Issa’s distress. The scene evokes a particularly memorable vignette from the 2001 romantic comedy Two Can Play That Game, the battle-of-the-sexes romp that follows Shanté Smith (Vivica A. Fox), a marketing executive and self-appointed relationship guru. While the film focuses on Smith’s own relationship woes, one early scene finds her narrating a confrontation between her friend Tracey (Tamala Jones) and Tracey’s boyfriend, Dwain (Dondre Whitfield). Enraged that Dwain doesn't have a plausible excuse for her questions about his infidelity, Tracey proceeds to break several items in his living room. Delivering the final blow to their relationship with a pre-Lemonade bat, Tracey demolishes one of Dwain’s lamps. Breaking the fourth wall in a signature move, Shanté delivers some advice to male viewers as Tracey wrecks the wayward Dwain’s apartment: “Let me ask you … why do men let women come over their house and break shit? That don’t make sense. When you do your dirt, go over her house … so when she gets mad, she can bust up all of her shit.”

GIF of Tracey (Tamala Jones) smashing her boyfriend’s lamp with a baseball bat in ‘Two Can Play That Game’ Screen Gems

I thought of Shanté and Tracey as I watched Insecure on Sunday night. While Issa’s tantrum didn't occur in Lawrence’s space, or with him even in sight, it’s hardly surprising that she busted up all of her own shit. Throughout the series, and Season 2 in particular, both Issa and Lawrence have avoided any meaningful self-reflection—to disastrous effect. Both parties sulked, slept around, and spoke ill of one another; we may not have seen any subtweets, but we knew they were flying. In their F-bomb-laced fight outside the dinner party, Issa mocks the app Lawrence worked on while she “supported [his] depressed ass” and he calls her a “hoe” for cheating on him. Their exchange is uncomfortable, but not outside the boundaries of what jilted exes might say to one another. Post-breakup behavior is rarely cordial.

While it is not rare for a TV show to serve as a mirror for its audience, it has often felt like Insecure has spent more time banking on its viewers’ reactions than it has fleshing out the characters’ stories. It is natural—and easy—for viewers to cringe at harsh words exchanged between former lovers; it is harder to develop the motivations and character history that ground those flashy outbursts. It is the show’s choice to decide how to spend its time and viewers’ prerogative to interpret the material. In the contentious, conflict-driven arena that is Twitter, it’s hardly surprising that Insecure’s romantic chaos propels the most passionate dialogue.

Insecure has given us a breakup without a relationship, and the Season 2 tension between Lawrence and Issa has required viewers to fill in the emotional gaps. Naturally, audiences have done so along gendered lines, with Lawrence and Issa becoming unlikely heroes to the men and women who watch the show and relate to their struggles (and, frequently, their pettiness). These gendered camps also recall Two Can Play That Game’s central tension: Shanté spends much of the film explaining a “playbook” for keeping her boyfriend in line. Even in 2001, when the comparatively regressive gender politics of Girlfriends and Sex and the City reigned supreme, the most gratifying part of Shanté’s scheme was the moment she realized it wouldn’t work. For Issa—and the show, if not its Twitter followers—it seems a similar light-bulb moment may finally be just around the corner. After the games get old, you have to look in the mirror and decide to face yourself. Insecure’s references to a romantic comedy forerunner that culminated with its lead abandoning her bullish commitment to gendered “rules” may very well signal a necessary self-awareness for the show itself.

But viewers take Insecure personally. Every Sunday night, the show offers an opportunity for Twitter users (especially black Twitter users) to participate in a loosely pegged referendum on modern dating. Allegiances are claimed, and anxieties are (sometimes unwittingly) broadcasted. Even when the episodes themselves deviate from modern conventions, viewer dialogue remains robust and contentious, tracing everything from proper blow-job etiquette to threesome soundtracks to “hoetation” maintenance tips. It’s fitting, then, that the show, with its own crew of upwardly mobile black people lamenting their dating woes over mimosas, also owes much of its gendered engagement to Two Can Play That Game. When it was released, the movie was particularly notable for its depictions of middle-class black people gambling on a playbook to guide them through love and lust. Writer and director Mark Brown intentionally envisioned the film as a female-driven battle of the sexes: “I think women drive the market. But men liked [male lead Morris Chestnut’s] drive, they loved the fact that he showed up with another girl at the party,” Brown said when I interviewed him last year. “Even during the premiere, you would hear guys cheer during those particular scenes. And it’s funny, because a lot of the cheering was divided purely along gender lines.”

Insecure leans into this gendered dynamic, especially in the character of Lawrence. His final scene in Sunday night’s episode—aptly titled “Hella Disrespectful”—is set at a bar, where he leans in to kiss the coworker he’d unwisely brought along to the dinner party where he wound up lashing out at Issa. The post-dinner spark with his coworker is a temporary win, guaranteed to both delay and complicate Lawrence’s eventual healing. But the male viewers who have rallied behind Lawrence as their middling everyman have defended him fervently since first embracing him toward the end of Season 1. Ellis himself notes the character has exhibited “fuckboy” behavior but told The Cut that his character’s actions are informed by the show’s larger themes: “Men have feelings, too, and want those feelings to be heard. Even if we don’t know how to articulate them in the best way — I know I don’t, I’m a total baby — but still, we want them to be heard, and I think that’s where this conversation starts to bubble, and you hear perspectives.” While Lawrence rarely reflects on his actions, the discussion generated by his moments of vulnerability does offer rare space for black male viewers to unpack their own experiences—even if much of #LawrenceHive’s chatter is devoted to the character’s sordid conquests.

Beyond impromptu screenings with cast members like Ellis, Insecure’s dramatic divide is encouraged with each postshow “Wine Down,” in which Rae and cast explore the episode’s themes—and fuel those same gendered fires with a wink and a nudge. Even with Rae as the consistent host, guests like Ellis and Y’lan Noel (who plays Issa’s sometime lover Daniel) offer a steady platform for the perspectives of the men they have come to represent. The result often feels exactly like a lengthy black Twitter debate, a wheel spun to one of many “relationship drama” options. All we’re missing is $200 dates.

The space between Rae and each Insecure-affiliated guest is open, a visual nod to audience members tuning in across a range of ages, races, and genders. Sure, Issa’s couch may be plusher and her prosecco pricier than yours now, but she addresses viewers as peers both in the videos themselves and in the show’s wildly active hashtag. (The show is particularly attentive to its internet economy, with Rae even addressing more serious fan chatter like admonitions to more clearly depict safe sex.) Like Shanté’s addresses to the Two Can Play That Game audience mid-conflict, Issa’s postshow reflections both break the fourth wall and apply well beyond the specter of Insecure’s plot. To watch Insecure is to become invested in the ways its characters act out common dating fumbles; to tweet about it is to keep score. Even if audiences remain wedded to the antipathy between Lawrence and Issa, the show may slowly be moving toward an exploration of what the two have in common: a desperate need to finally invest in themselves.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.